BOSTON — Plans are currently being considered by the little known Boston Landmarks Commission to make cosmetic changes to the facade of Faneuil Hall, one of the nation’s civic centerpieces.
While at it, the commission members should also change its name.
Faneuil Hall to many across the country is considered a cradle of liberty where ideas about democracy and civic engagement were forged. Unique concepts of American liberty and egalitarianism were nurtured and debated within its walls.
But Fanuiel Hall is also a place built with a donation of money derived from the sale of a slave. It is also a place where southern plantation owners shipped cotton picked by unpaid human chattel. This is what makes it a shameful symbol in our history and especially an insult to the dignity of African-Americans.
Across the country, city leaders are reflecting on the existential meaning of monuments -- 1,503 in total -- that glorify the confederacy and the practice of enslaving humans. They are examining the question of: What community standards could possibly justify the presence and maintenance of statutes and cenotaphs that symbolize centuries of misery suffered by black Americans?
Fortunately, some mayors across the country have decided to relegate public references to slavery and Jim Crow to the history books or museums where they can be long remembered but not celebrated.
Last month Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh removed three monuments associated with slavery -- two confederate war generals and a statute honoring former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney who endorsed the practice of slavery in the court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision. The city of New Orleans removed all of its confederate statutes this spring. Dallas, Memphis, Tennessee and Jacksonville, Florida, Norfolk, Virginia are undertaking similar actions.
But Boston’s political leadership so far has appeared indifferent to the idea of addressing the issue of white supremacy by celebrating slaveholding. They argue with a voice of gradualism and stubborn reassessment.
Mayor Marty Walsh has cautioned Bostonians of being too “emotional” about changing the name of Faneuil Hall, saying he’s “focused on other things” and believes Bostonians should be careful not to “rush to judgement.”
What Walsh apparently fails to understand is that the odious institution of slavery remains painfully present in the minds of black citizens in this city, haunting them. To the dismay of many, Walsh seems oblivious to the reality that white supremacy is a lasting, repulsive feature that scars American democracy. It poisons our civic life locally and nationally. It cripples our capacity the evolve democratically.
Of course, Americans can't rename everything that was built with the spoils of slavery. That would require renaming far too many things, including the country itself. And we should not dismantle Faneuil Hall as some monuments have been displaced and stored in warehouses.
But a few, demonstrable symbolic acts -- like renaming Faneuil Hall -- will go a long way toward confronting a brutal past and its continuing legacy today. It will send powerful messages to all Americans that we will not hide the horrid facts that comprise our history. It would show our commitment to telling the inconvenient truths about our nation and ourselves.
Many white Americans protest vociferously that the act of removing a confederate statute or changing the name of a public park or building suggests the hostile act of erasing history. Such logic fails to acknowledge the historians -- and the white public, in general -- have themselves committed this very act of erasing history by concealing the unsettlingly truths that characterize the founding of this nation.
Some -- including Mayor Walsh -- argue that now is “not the time” to address changing the name of Faneuil Hall because other cites are pursuing similar processes of public reflection. Such rationalizing is false at best and collapses under the weight of its own faulty reasoning.
Now would be the best time as ever to dialogue with other cities about what led to them their decisions about addressing white supremacy? Moreover, in the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, the “time to do right is always ripe.”
Changing the name of Faneuil Hall is ultimately an act of moral courage that confronts the original sins of the city.
Americans will not erase the past by acknowledging its full features. Far from it. Renaming Faneuil Hall represents a patriotic commitment that courageously looks to repair aspects of our history, restore civic dignity and enhance our mutually shared democracy.